Moving forward on municipal voting reform in Toronto

Ballot image, from a photo by D'Arcy Norma/Flickr

As we enter the final stretch of the Toronto municipal election, two things have become abundantly clear.

First, we need a new and better way of electing our mayor and city councillors. A voting system that forces many people to vote strategically rather than sincerely, and that creates a council not reflecting our city's diversity, has no place in a 21st-century democracy. Second, we need a process to identify the best system or systems for Toronto -- a course being promoted by the Toronto chapter of Fair Vote Canada.

Progressive activists have been fighting for fair and proportional systems, and voter equality, at the federal and provincial levels. Now we need to press for the same at the municipal level. Voter equality is what creates truly representative bodies that reflect the full diversity of the community.

In 1865, Swiss philosopher Ernest Naville summarized the core democratic principles this way: "In democracy the majority has the right of decision, but all have the right to representation." If those principles resonate with Torontonians -- and indeed all Canadians -- then we have to study the systems that deliver the goods.

How do we address those principles? Broadly speaking, there are two types of voting systems: winner-take-all and proportional (or fair) voting systems. Each has its place in a democracy.

When an election is held for a one-person position -- such as a mayor, party leader, president -- a winner-take-all system is needed. Only one candidate can win -- only one person can play the role.

Under the current system in Toronto, the candidate with the most votes wins the mayor's seat. But we could switch to a run-off system, where the winning candidate needs at least 50 per cent plus one to win -- most easily done by using a ranked ballot, where second choices play a role if no candidate has a majority of first-choice votes. Most Torontonians would probably greet the use of instant run-off balloting for the mayor as a step forward.

But with any type of winner-takes-all voting, instant run-off or first-past-the-post, a lot of voters still cast ballots that elect no one.

Fortunately, when voters are electing a city council (or provincial legislature or federal parliament) -- a body with many elected people whose purpose is to represent and act on behalf of all voters -- then we have another option. We can and should use a fair and proportional system, designed to allow almost all voters to elect someone to council. This means that not only do the largest group of voters, or the majority, get to elect councilors, but so will those with minority points of view. For example, progressive voters living in a part of the city dominated by conservatives will be able to elect someone, and vice versa. With a fair and proportional system, you don't lose your right to political representation because of your political views and where you happen to live. And the overall outcome is a council representing the full diversity of the electorate.

The fair voting concept sounds great, but how do you do it at the municipal level?

This is where a citizen-engagement process is needed. We have numerous options and may even want to develop a hybrid system specifically for Toronto.

One option is having larger wards that elect more than one councillor -- that's what allows more than one group of voters to gain representation. Electing two or three councillors in larger wards opens the door to representation for both the majority and minority within a ward. Electing four, five or more in a larger ward gives even better assurance of fair representation for all.

Another approach is a mixed system, which would have the added advantage of creating council positions that are accountable to a citywide base of voters.

For example, rather than 44 small neighbourhood wards, we could have 34 wards and 10 citywide council positions. The 10 citywide positions would be elected by everyone, using a ranked ballot form of proportional representation (called the single transferrable vote), which would allow minorities as small as 10 per cent of all voters in the city to elect a candidate to one of those positions.

Another interesting option: rather than citywide seats, we could divide the city into four districts, each with three or four district council members to represent voters in those areas.

Some say that the only reform we need in council elections is to use ranked ballots (instant run-off voting) to elect the individual councillors from the 44 wards as they exist today. But that winner-take-all voting would still leave too many voters unrepresented -- plus it leaves us with a council composed solely of politicians each elected by a portion of voters in just 1/44th of the city. No one other than the mayor would be democratically accountable to broader groups of voters.

When we have a reform opportunity, let's not just replace the current system, which leaves far too many people unrepresented, with another alternative that also leaves too many people unrepresented. One of the mixed systems described above might be an interesting compromise for those who want to see instant run-off voting in wards and others who want to see the introduction of at least an element of proportional representation. And multi-member wards also deserve serious consideration, which leads to the final point.

Reform opportunities are all too rare. The best choices and trade-offs are not always obvious. A traditional sound-bite political debate by city council is not good enough. Torontonians need to be engaged in a serious and thoughtful assessment of the alternatives, with both city and media support.

The Toronto Chapter of Fair Vote Canada is calling for an official city-managed, citizen-driven, expert-supported engagement process to look at municipal voting system options to identify the best voting system or systems for Toronto. In the coming years, we may have one of those rare opportunities to improve our municipal electoral system, so let's do it right -- by engaging citizens and exploring all options.

Larry Gordon is executive director of Fair Vote Canada and a Toronto resident. See FVC Toronto Chapter Facebook group: Fair Voting in Toronto.

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